On the last evening of November--an oddly balmy day for the beginning of a Minnesota winter--my neighbor posted a message on Facebook. Great-horned owl down at the lake, she said, "keeping watch." This made me ridiculously excited. It's not that I've never seen an owl; I've seen lots of them, and used to regularly detour past the pine trees of the Japanese garden on the morning dog walk, just to crane my neck way, way back and look way, way up and spot the owl who lived there. Sometimes it took awhile--he wasn't always in the same spot, or in the same tree--but for more than a year, he was always there.
We pay attention outside, but we are not overly observant, and I probably would never have known about that owl but for the fact that my husband saw it early one winter morning. It could not have been more obvious: it was not in the top of the pine tree then, but sitting on the ground in the snow. Doug came home and mentioned it and I dashed, coatless, out to the car, drove to the park, and got there just in time. Our eyes met, there was a pause, perhaps a stare-down, and then the owl spread its enormous wings and lifted straight up, like a helicopter, and disappeared into the pine boughs. It was after that that I began stopping by every morning, to say hello.
So when my friend mentioned on Facebook that there was an owl by the lake, I asked her for a more specific location. It is hard to explain why, but I needed to see it. She gave me rough directions--it was in a tree between the lake and the walking path, after the parking lot but before the houses--and I pulled on my hat and coat and trotted off. There are a lot of trees between the parking lot and the houses, some very tall, where I have seen eagles on windy days, and some too wispy and frail to hold something as big and sturdy as an owl. I walked slowly, scanning every tree, every branch.
It was not yet 7 p.m. but already very dark, moonless, starless, and when a young man strolled past I slowed way down and let him pass, on high alert. I wanted to see the owl, but I didn't want to be foolish about it.
I trolled all the way to the first house before I saw it, sitting motionless on the low branch of a sturdy tree that bent toward the water. I gasped out loud, I was so thrilled. An owl means so many things--a low hoot in the early morning, a silent dive over my head on the night walk, a big and wild presence in a very urban park. Who can explain this need I have to track them down? To not just see them, but record them? I pulled out my cell phone, made sure the flash was off, and aimed.
The result was a picture of a black owl on a black branch in front of a black lake on a black, moonless night. It was like the old joke about the white sheet of paper being a picture of a polar bear in a blizzard--like that, only opposite. (I lightened up the picture, and now he just looks like a black lump on a gray background.)
The next night, the first of December, Doug and I took the dogs around the lake after sunset. The chances of the owl being in the same spot were pretty slim, but I was hopeful. I wanted to share it; I wanted to show the owl to someone the way my neighbor had shown it to me.
Around the lake we went, ending up at the owl tree. And there he was--same tree, same branch, looking out over the lake, keeping watch. "Are you sure it's real?" Doug said, and as though it could understand him, the owl turned its head.
It is easy to stay indoors, especially when the days get shorter and colder. I'm not always going to find something remarkable, especially in the frigid dark. But there's always the chance that I might. What keeps me going, suiting up, heading out, is this: if I don't go and look, I will never see.